A long, long time ago when I was about 17 I smoked a tobacco pipe. I really enjoyed the “hobby”. Some might call it ritualistic. Its definitely something to be savoured and not rushed. There is so much more to pipe smoking than just the pipe. Its an experience from start to finish. Firstly teasing the rich golden strands from the pouch or tin while simultaneously breathing in the unlit aroma. Then packing the bowl – not too tight or loose. Just lighting the contents and keeping the fire going requires concentration and takes time to learn. Only then can you sit back and truly enjoy the fruits of your labour. Dedication is key.
In the early days I didn’t even own a commercially made pipe – I made my own (with the help of my father). These were by no means briar masterpieces, oh no, simple, rustic examples made from the knurled apple tree that dominated our garden. The mouthpiece (or bit) was made from a dried and hollowed out elderberry stem and entered the “bowl” corncob style. Crude? Looking back, yes!
As my new found hobby gained momentum my father bought me numerous “stubby” pipes. You know proper briars, stamped “Made in Italy”. These were quite common back in the 1980’s, a generic no-name drug store pipe – they were cheap and actually quite good quality. I still have them to this day.
Anyway, pipe smoking is all about paraphernalia and that is something that appeals to me. Kit! Not just a collection of pipes, but stuff like pipe tools, tampers, reamers, lighters, matches, pipe cleaners, leather pouches and of course numerous tobaccos to experiment with. Talking of which an Uncle that served in the Merchant Navy at the time, first introduced me to “proper” tobacco. When on shore leave he would visit Dunhill’s, London, purchasing significant quantities of luxury blends (mostly aromatics). He would share his haul with me. This was a revelation. Up till now I had only smoked “over the counter” tobacco like Condor, St Bruno, Clan and Erinmore – for a beginner I found most to be too strong or extremely bland so this “fancy” stuff really hit the spot. Full of exotic flavours, body and a pleasing “shed note”.
Ultimately this was to be my downfall. I was smoking more and became addicted to tobacco or more correctly nicotine. Sitting in the garden shed smoking a pipe was the ultimate relaxation tool, but I was becoming fidgety and needed a “hit” between bowls. This was satisfied by hand rolling tobacco. I’m sure you can appreciate where this is going? Yes, cigarettes! Love them or hate them agree or disagree my hobby had turned into a habit and the previous enjoyment of pipe smoking was lost in addiction.
At that time in my life, cigarettes were also more convenient to use in public, they required little preparation barring rolling and served a purpose – to fuel my cravings. Don’t get me wrong I liked smoking, but the pleasure of choosing when to smoke was lost in the “need” to smoke.
So there you have it. My pipe smoking days were over through circumstance. I was a fully fledged smoker, a cigarette wielding smoker at that. My pipes saw little use and ultimately were carefully packed up in a box and life went on. Hand rolling tobacco turned into Camel filter tips and that was that.
Fast forward 25 years, I was still smoking cigarettes, the odd cigar here and there, before I discovered electronic cigarettes. These enabled me to quit smoking virtually overnight and while I did lapse a few times “vaping” was my new hobby and has been for the past 4 years. Its not quite the same as smoking, but it delivers the nicotine required and I do enjoy it. That said I’ve always missed tobacco and the halcyon days of pipe smoking only serve to heighten that feeling – maybe a bit rose tinted – but what with one thing and another, I wanted to revisit those times.
I found myself on YouTube watching videos of an American chap called Tom (NWPipeSmoker) mulling over life while enjoying a bowl or two in trusty estate pipes from a bygone age. Relaxed and content with life – Tom is a true pipe smoking ambassador, tobacco enthusiast and exquisite story teller, I wanted to rejoin the ranks of gents like him! So thanks for the inspiration Tom – the internet is a remarkable thing.
As a Type 1 Diabetic rekindling an interest in any form of smoking is not exactly logical, but weighing up the daily stresses of an extremely tedious condition verses the “risk” factor of puffing a pipe I decided I would pursue my once loved hobby again and look for a brand new pipe to kick start it.
Here in Great Britain, the old fashioned high street tobacconist has become a victim of politically correct times and a whole host of other issues. Back in the day every town or city had one – alas no more. Where I live the nearest tobacconist is an hour and half away so my quest would be online.
I pretty much narrowed down my search based on bowl shape and size (not too long for outdoor use). Preferring a filter pipe, but not relishing soggy paper style filters, I looked keenly at the 6mm balsa wood filter system Savinelli had to offer. Established in 1876, the Italian pipe makers have a good reputation – quality control, dry smoking (courtesy of the balsa filters) and stunning designs/finishes – all from locally sourced Sardinian and Corsican briar.
I was looking for a rustic design as “fills” annoy me! Briar is a natural root and tiny blemishes and sand pits are fairly common unless you spend vast sums on perfection. In the past all my pipes have had fills and I ended up sanding them out and repolishing them. Anyway a rustic finish would negate those.
Searching for my perfect smoking companion I arrived at the Black Swan Specialist Tobacconist website. Founded in 1960 this is a family run business with shops in Scarborough, Whitby and Wakefield. They provide excellent (and friendly) customer service and just about everything a smoker could wish for, plus more beside. The internet side of the business has been running since 2004 and caters for customers outside of the Yorkshire area and further afield what with the global reach of the web.
I didn’t have to peruse the Savinelli’s long. I had found my pipe. A half bent 305 with an acrylic tortoiseshell mouthpiece and matching pocket shield. That’s where the Tortuga designation comes from – its Spanish for tortoise/turtle.
Upon arrival I was amazed at the quality and textured feel in the hand. My thumb sits comfortably against the angled shank and it genuinely oozes quality. The pipe comes gift boxed, with a blue cloth bag, ash cap, a user guide and Savinelli brochure. Some sets come with a spare pack of 10 filters and non filter adaptor, some don’t. Mine didn’t, so I contacted Kris at Black Swan and he kindly forwarded them by return post.
Its a stunning pipe with a flattened triangle shank (a sort of homage to the classic bulldog diamond shank but not quite!) with a subtle upward curve to accommodate the mouthpiece’s natural lines – the “bit” in itself is a sight to behold – gorgeous flame coloured hues. The lines are cut sharply and while pictures may give the impression that the shank is slim its actually quite broad to aid cooling.
The makers marks are stamped on a non rusticated panel on the bowl base – this enables the pipe to sit safely on a flat surface with no fear of falling over – ideal for resting between puffs.
The tenon is bonded to the highly polished mouthpiece and finished with a solid piece of brass which compliments the Tortuga, forming a striking gold band where it joins the briar. The tenon fits snugly into the mortise and can be used with filters or without (a non filter adaptor is recommended by Savinelli if you choose not to use the balsa wood system). Total length of the pipe is 140mm and light in the lips at just 51g.
The apple shaped briar bowl and shank are rusticated to perfection (in my eyes) and stained in two shades: a deep red and dark brown, almost black – a combination adding accented highlights and depth. Over time this finish will develop wonderfully with handling and use. The bowl rim (40mm in diameter) is slightly bevelled and polished to a high sheen. I measured my bowl’s height and its 40mm give or take.
The smoking chamber is left bare with no staining or factory carbonising, so a decent cake needs to be established over a period of smokes to condition the wall sides (a few half bowls should suffice). Its a medium sized chamber with a tapered bore (22mm) and fire depth of 32mm. The walls are quite thick which should provide for a cool smoke. The draft hole is precisely drilled.
The real fun begins when its time to prepare the #305 for smoking, but I shall leave that for Part 2!